The Genius in the Room
D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace.
Photograph by Steve Rhodes/Wikiquotes.
In a 2004 New York Times review of Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life, David Foster Wallace invoked what he called a “paradox about literary biographies.” Most people interested enough in a writer’s life to read a whole book about it were, he argued, likely to be admirers of that writer’s work, and were therefore inclined to idealize him or her as a person. “And yet,” he wrote, “it often seems that the person we encounter in the literary biography could not possibly have written the works we admire. And the more intimate and thorough the bio, the stronger this feeling usually is.” The Borges that Wallace encountered in Williamson’s book (“a vain, timid, pompous mama's boy, given for much of his life to dithery romantic obsessions”) didn’t seem to have a whole lot in common with the genius who wrote the stories in Ficciones and The Aleph.
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s biography of Wallace, doesn’t elicit quite as stark a sense of paradox, or as thorough a disillusionment. The things we learn about DFW the Guy tend to correspond to what we already knew about DFW the Writer. What’s surprising, though, is how often those correspondences take forms we mightn’t have expected. Wallace was preoccupied with the ungainly, unfashionable questions of how to live and of how to be moral, and he believed that fiction had to try to provide answers to those questions. It shouldn’t be surprising that he himself was often guilty of exactly the kind of (specifically male) moral failures he focused on in, say, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.
But it’s still something of a shock to see the extent to which Wallace—the perspiring, softly spoken and tortuously sincere figure of popular affection—could himself be a Hideous Man. Sure, his friend Jonathan Franzen felt compelled to point out that Wallace was never “Saint Dave,” but it’s another thing entirely to see him walking through the Amherst campus as an undergraduate, remarking on the springtime “smell of cunt in the air.” We later learn that Orin Incandenza’s penchant, in Infinite Jest, for seducing young mothers is in fact something he shared with his creator. We learn about DFW’s womanizing, about his book-tour fondness for “audience pussy,” and that he once wondered aloud to Franzen about whether his only purpose in life was “to put my penis in as many vaginas as possible.”
It might at first seem difficult to reconcile this guy with the writer who famously demolished John Updike and his fellow “Great Male Narcissists” for their priapic self-absorption, but what’s at issue here isn’t hypocrisy so much as a kind of outward-directed self-reproof that was crucial to Wallace’s writing. A lot of what he disliked in other people, and much of what concerned him about contemporary culture (polymorphous addiction, shallow self-obsession, ostentatious cleverness, reflexive irony) was a reflection of something that discomfited him in himself. Unlike Updike, Wallace refused to make an artistic virtue out of the necessary evil of his own narcissism; he wanted, in his life and his art, to be a great deal better than he often was. (As a teacher he was hard on clever students who reminded him, either in their work or their personalities, of his younger self.)
One of the most compelling aspects of Every Love Story is the drama of this ongoing struggle between the ideal and actual selves. “In general,” as Max puts it in a section on Wallace’s first sojourn at the Yaddo artists retreat, “he gyrated between wanting to impress and disliking himself for having such impulses, between making his mark as the genius in the room and getting his work done.” He badly wanted fame and success, which he of course got, but what he wanted even more was to be the type of writer for whom these things didn’t matter. This he never quite managed to achieve.
Max quotes a letter Wallace wrote to Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, with whom he was briefly involved. The letter captures a raw form of the kind of exponential moral self-scrutiny that is now so associated with Wallace, and which could often make him seem like the hypertrophic offspring of Derrida and St. Augustine:
I go through a loop in which I notice all the ways I am—for just an example—self-centered and careerist and not true to standards and values that transcend my own petty interests, and feel like I’m not one of the good ones; but then I countenance the fact that here at least here I am worrying about it, noticing all the ways I fall short of integrity, and I imagine that maybe people without any integrity at all don’t notice or worry about it [...] but this soon becomes a vehicle for feeling superior to (imagined) Others.
In that Borges piece, Wallace also identified a problem he saw as being more or less built into the genre of literary biography: that “the personal lives of people who spend 14 hours a day sitting there alone, reading and writing, are not going to be thrill rides to hear about.” That may be true in general (it’s certainly true of the Borges biography, which is, I can confirm, no Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), but it’s not true of Wallace’s life, and it’s not true of this book. “Thrill ride” wouldn’t be quite the right term for what is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but I’m having trouble remembering when I was last so consumed by any piece of writing, fiction or non.
Mark O'Connell is a staff writer for the Millions and an IRCHSS postdoctoral research fellow in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin.